Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Postcard from Plzeň

Because nobody wanted it. And I am too lazy to re-write it to make anyone want it. Plus I promised you all that I would furnish details of moi's many alcohol adventures. And because someone needs to convince Cat that the place exists.

The Czech Republic holds the interesting distinction of being the country with the highest per capita consumption of beer in the world. Wikipedia informs me that at 157 litres / year, the Czechs are way ahead of the Irish who come in second with 131 litres. Most of what the Czechs drink is a pale lager or rather the mother of all pale lagers, the Pilsner Urquell. The city of Pilsen (Czech: Plzeň) in western Bohemia is home to the brewery which invented the pale lager. Car aficionados no doubt recognize Pilsen as being the home of the much-seen cars on desi highways in recent years, the Skoda. As LP informed me, car and beer don’t usually mix, but don’t mention that when you are in Pilsen.

We took the bus to Pilsen from Prague, arguably the most beautiful city in Bohemia if not in all of Europe. For the casual visitor, Prague is all about the Castle’s amazing gargoyles, lovely church steeples and gold-tipped Hussite spires. For the culturally inclined, there is no dearth of intellectual tradition - this is after all the city of Kafka and Kundera, of Hrabal and of a young Forman, and of the playwright-President Vaclav Havel. Pilsen, on the other hand, seemed gritty, more an industrial town than a cultural centre, and the people not as friendly; in a sense closer to their German neighbours than their fellow countrymen in the east. It took all the German we knew and a bit of luck in the form of a Pilsner Urquell truck that we ran after to find our way to the brewery.

There were three Swedes (I am actually not making this up) in addition to the two of us in the English tour that was just starting. As we were waiting for the last two people in our tour to arrive Jan, our tour guide told us the history of how at the end of WW2, the American soldiers had already liberated Pilsen a couple of days before the Red Army reached Prague. However, they waited in Pilsen instead of continuing on to Prague in deference to their Soviet Allies who were making their way to Prague from the east. This is why Pilsen celebrates Liberation Day two days before the rest of the country. Jan explained that since then, the Americans had never turned up on time for anything just as the last two people on our tour, the American couple, joined us.

The tour began with a video of the history of the brewery – in the 1800s, every building in the city centre had a brewing license. However, the citizens were not happy with top-fermented beers because of their low quality and short storage life and decided to incorporate a brewery to produce bottom-fermenting beer. The Bavarian brewers were considered the masters in bottom fermentation and therefore they hired Josef Groll, a brewer from Bavaria. In 1842, Groll produced the first batch of Urquell beer, but distinct from the Bavarian ones because of the use of soft Bohemian water, pale malt local to the region, and bitter hops from Saaz. From such humble beginnings, Pilsner Urquell has gone on to become the signature lager, the flagship brand today for the SABMiller brewery group with many copycat products trying to cash in to the Pilsner name[1].

We visited the new, state-of-the-art bottling plant (latest German technology we were told) where thousands of bottles and cans were making their way through conveyor belts. The capacity was 60,000 bottles an hour and they work around the clock. In addition to cans and bottles, kegs are filled with unpasteurised beer to supply to the local pubs. We were then taken to the brewing plants – the old brewery has been converted into an exhibition hall and a new plant built next to it. Jan walked us through the process of making the lager – malt, water, hops and yeast are all that goes into it. Both barley for the pale malt and hops is local to the region and there were samples for us to taste. The hops were bitter, way bitter than any bitter-gourd I’ve been made to have but the after taste makes it worth the effort.

We then walked to the new brewing plant to see the mashing process - the malted grain is mixed with water and heated to break down the starch in the grains to sugars. The malt extract, called wort is boiled, and hops added at this stage to give the beer its bitterness and aroma. Once the wort is whirl pooled and cooled, the yeast is added and the fermentation process begins. For the lager, bottom fermenting yeasts are used, and these eat less sugar, produce a cleaner taste and have a longer storage life. When the sugars have been completely digested, the beer is cooled to freezing, and conditioned for 5 or 6 weeks. This beer is then filtered to remove any yeast and hops before it is sent to the packaging plant for pasteurisation and bottling.

At this point, Bill and I reckoned that we were nearly at the end of the tour and as we had a train to catch (to the next beer town actually), we told Jan that we would be leaving and promised him that we would have Pilsner Urquell in the next pub we are at. Jan asked us to wait a few minutes more. So we walked down with him to the old and dank fermentation cellars. Temperature controlled rooms and tanks are used for this purpose nowadays but these hand-built cellars are still used to make a few barrels of beer the old way just for the tour groups and for the brewery museum. This beer comes straight off the barrel, and is unfiltered and unpasteurised and more importantly, is not available anywhere else in the world. In Jan’s words, “this is the real thing”. We immediately took the largest glass possible, got it filled, raised the glasses with a “Skol” to the Swedes, and promptly drank it all up. We missed the train to Cesky Budejovice that day and had to wait a couple of hours for the next train but I wasn’t complaining. The tiny bits of hops along with the heavenly pale lager were definitely worth missing a couple of trains.

[1] I know. It is intentional alright? I have been told that this can count as relationship building. If I manage to sell work, I reckon I can expense my Czech trip. So yeah, no snarkiness on this one. Be nice.

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